Personal Responsibility column: No free rides in college

Bryan Whiting.

Politicians are offering us free stuff, so it must be campaign time again.

Apparently, they feel the best strategy to get our vote is to not only promise us something we don’t have but say they can provide it for free. We can’t blame them; it seems to work.

We don’t value what we get for free, because in our minds it doesn’t have value. Why expend time and energy necessary on something that doesn’t have value?

Free college is a common proposal. Education is important and costly. It’s the most effective way to break a cycle of poverty or improve our standard of living. But “free” pretends to ignore its costs, depreciates its value, facilitates poor decision making and doesn’t consider ramifications or unintended consequences.

Free college doesn’t teach personal responsibility. Why not go to college even if it’s not related to our career choice; it’s free? It’s party time. Students aren’t motivated to look at the trades and other professions that don’t require college; most of which are in high demand and low supply.

If it’s free, why work during high school or college? Work has value far beyond dollars. It provides an opportunity to test potential careers, gain confidence and learn the value of essential employment characteristics of punctuality, initiative, getting along with people and work ethic.

“Free” also takes the onus off the university to produce tangible learning. They receive more and more money eliminating any motivation to produce competent graduates or offer the classes students need each semester. If it takes another year, it isn’t affecting their revenue. Motivation to assure their professors are quality educators is reduced.

Is it possible to pay for college without incurring major debt? Yes, but it requires action.

As parents we must facilitate our child working and saving. It will increase their post-secondary training fund, and experience makes them more employable in the future. A summer of work can easily produce $5,000 in the bank. Three summers produces at least $15,000.

Should they work during high school and make more money? The student determines the answer. If they are taking a “full” academic schedule, participating in athletics and other co-curricular activities the answer may be “no.” If they are majoring in 7-11 or couch potato the answer is “yes.”

The key is not only facilitating their saving but requiring it. A car, new skis, latest phone, trendy clothes are not necessities. A post-secondary education to facilitate a career is a necessity.

Start parental saving early. At a parent-teacher conference a father stated, “Wow, Aaron’s a junior, better start saving for his college.” I wanted to throw a glass of water in his face. Unless he’s making $250K per year it’s a little late. $300 per month earning 3% for 18 years produces over $86K. That’s a start.

$300 per month isn’t easy, but possible. Besides working more, we need to be as disciplined as we are asking our children to be. Minimizing vices will provide money. The average tobacco smoker annually spends $2,800 which is $50,400 over 18 years; average drinker $5,200 which becomes $93,400; marijuana $1,600 turns into $28,280. Vices are fun, but where we spend our money tells us what we deem most important.

Yes, we have a responsibility to help with our child’s post-secondary education. I’ve had many say, “My parents didn’t help me, I’m not helping my kids.” That’s taking your basketball and going home because you lost a game of “horse”; it’s telling your kids Santa doesn’t exist at age 1, because you learned it at age 10. It’s our job to assure our kids be educated, employable citizens; unless we want them coming back home at age 30.

That doesn’t mean paying for everything. Students are more motivated if they have “skin in the game.” The college student should continue to work during the summer. Summer wages are better than loans. Work during vacations. The spring break trip is fun, but it will cost you three ways: lost wages, increased spending and a way to separate yourself in a job interview. Work ethic is the hardest characteristic for an employer to determine. Working when it’s inconvenient speaks louder than any words you say.

Colleges have a responsibility to lower costs. The typical professor teaches 9-15 hours per week for 30 weeks. Private sector employees work 40-50 hours per week for 50 weeks. Professors have preparation to do, but so does everyone who is successful in their career. If professors taught 30 hours a week, the number of professors could be reduced by 50%, a large savings.

The typical college semester is 15 weeks; 30 weeks for a two-semester year leaving 22 weeks students aren’t taking classes or professors aren’t teaching. The summer session is seven weeks, only allowing a partial schedule. Why not three 15-week semesters? This leaves seven weeks off during the year; more than enough free time. A student could finish in three years. Per student professor costs would be lower. The buildings are there, usually paid for by public dollars, so why not fully utilize them?

A university is a fixed-cost industry like the airlines or a motel. Any businessperson knows the key to a fixed-cost industry is to maximize the use of the resource: Fill the plane, fill the motel rooms, use the buildings and professors.

College is expensive but it’s our responsibility to not be taken in by the false promises of campaign rhetoric that aren’t financially realistic, possess undesirable ramifications and reduce true value. But that doesn’t reduce our responsibility to provide it for ourselves and our children.

Bryan Whiting feels most of our issues are best solved by personal responsibility and an understanding of non-partisan economics rather than government intervention. Comments and column suggestions to:

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